“Never give up!” “Be determined.” “If you dream it, you can achieve it.” We often see inspirational messages such as these coating school classrooms, broadcasting the idea that willpower equals success.
But the ability to exercise self-control — even with a specific, self-imposed goal in mind — is tough, even as it develops with age. New research illustrates just how precarious willpower can be for young people: Middle school students who want to achieve a goal and who actively agree to suffer a consequence if they don’t achieve it may still be unable to change their counterproductive behaviors. It’s a reminder for teachers that simply encouraging students to “stay focused” may not help those students cultivate positive habits.
A Commitment to Improve Behavior
A new study [PDF] examined how well middle schoolers responded to “commitment devices,” or voluntary agreements to limit future choices through restrictions or penalties for failing to accomplish a goal. For example, a person who wants to improve her math grade might ask a friend to change her Netflix password until she’s taken an arduous test; if she wants to eat healthier, she might deposit money into an account that she can only access after improving her diet.